Indirectly watching two older ladies scurry across the empty street as wispy, powdery rain filled the air, Damien Jones sat on a bench, unsure of what life would be like for him now and how much would he really want to experience it anyway. The ladies, sensing his gaze stopped briefly and glanced back toward him, peering over their slightly oversized wraps of scarves, noting the grim emotionless look across his face. A face that was supposed to be thirty-five but had aged a decade in a matter of days.
His reddened, sore eyes followed them and widened slightly to acknowledge their stare. Of course, they immediately averted their gaze awkwardly, looking nervously instead to the darkening skies that seemed to spur them into activity and, hurriedly, they entered their nearby home. The front garden of their house was filled with dead, limp pampas grass and patches of yellowed lawn. Nothing grew here anymore. No one tended to the small pleasures the way they once had. Even the copse of trees at the top end of the road seemed barren all year round.
The fine drizzle clung to Damien’s thick, grizzly stubble, the miniscule droplets making his beard look even more grey than it already was. In his hand he tightly held a toy car. A metallic sky-blue American muscle car with an oversized spoiler and the word ‘speed’ written in red and yellow italics on the bonnet. As Damien continually rubbed his thumb across the car with absent minded repetition, the word had cracked and faded, and in places even the metal had begun to show through. The pad of his thumb now sore and red and almost smooth . This small car, no longer a child’s toy but a totem of loss.
The sky darkened prematurely above the town as the constant fog of fine, misty rain, whipped into swirling eddies by the wind, continued. The streetlights buzzed and flickered on intermittently, within seconds sending their sickly glow into every recess of the neighbourhood except, seemingly, between the black trees up the street, casting the whole town in an ugly, nicotine-yellow hue. But Damien didn’t move. He didn’t go home or to a friend’s house. Even if the pubs still opened around here after dark, he wouldn’t have gone to one. Everyone knew his business just as he had known the others’ before and, undoubtedly, everyone would know the misfortune of the next lost soul. Though the towns people would all feel dutiful sorrow for them, they would all feel a greater sense of relief. Relief that it wasn’t their turn when the siren called.
From the warmth of his home office, an upstairs box room illuminated only by a low watt bulb in a desk lamp, Fletcher Reese listened to music on his wireless headphones and watched Damien sit in the rain under leaden skies and felt a swell of sadness ball up inside of him. Sadness for Damien, sitting on that bench a few dozen yards up the street, hunched over looking at something in his hand. Sadness for the town and the blight that had befallen it. Most of all, sadness for himself. Trapped here. At the mercy of the siren and the phantom of Harry Fogg.
Fletcher remembered the days when Harry was just a story. A bogey man, kids thought. A story their parents would tell them. For some misdeed, the parents claimed, they could invoke the shade of old Harry Fogg or ‘Foggy’ who would arrive with a knock at the door and take them away.
But even the parents couldn’t have known the truth behind their stories. The truth of the horror that once visited this town. The nightmare that came when the siren called. They hadn’t been a part of that generation. The collectively labelled ‘wartime generation’ who worried about German aircraft that would swarm overhead, bombs trembling to be set free in the belly of each one, yet truly living in absolute fear of the twisted terror of a man who dressed in a pseudo-official disguise.
A warden of sorts, Fletcher had been told, complete with War Office issue helmet and dressed in a blue woollen battledress, atop of which he wore a brown leather sleeveless jerkin, and his face was hidden beneath an unusual, tattered, canvas gas mask. He was no more a pretend bogeyman now than he was a real warden then. He was a costumed curse.
Fletcher continued to stare out of the window through tired eyes whilst the soft music took the edge from his shattered nerves. He knew Damien from school. Or at least as well as anyone knew him. He was a boy with a fearsome reputation, one that followed him into adulthood. The scars on his face, the boxers’ nose and the rock-like knuckles on each hand were reminders that he was a scrapper not to be toyed with. Yet, despite the years of carefully crafted intimidation, he was now a broken, humbled wreck having lost the one thing that still tethered his last shreds of decency to this world.
Fletcher paused the music and slowly removed the headphones, placing them on the windowsill before gently flipping the light off on his desk and watching out of the window as one by one, all lights in windows were snuffed out and signs of life vanished across the town. Only Damien, beneath a custard-yellow streetlight, on a bench, in the rain, remained out there when that night’s siren began to clear its throat and crackle through the streets like a well-worn recording from decades ago.
It sounded like an old war movie, people thought, when they first heard it on that night an age ago. People even came out of their houses on that evening, as did Fletcher, looking around wondering what to make of that sound. All felt a shiver of excitement at the noise which seemed to emit from nowhere and everywhere at once. A few were nervous but still smiled along with their neighbours, the tone of the siren was an uncomfortable thing to hear but many did so with a grin. That is, except for the older residents.
In an instant, the wartime children, now old men and women, recognised that tooth clenching noise and in terror they closed their doors tight, drew curtains and closed blinds, instinctively insuring not a sliver of light could escape their home. The war was a long time ago, but Harry and the anonymous circular ‘eyes’ of his mask, were as fresh in their minds as that morning’s breakfast.
Now, all this time later, everyone knew what that droning sound brought and everyone knew who Harry was. They knew his rules, and no one dared break them, even if he came knocking on their front door.
Fletcher sat in his leatherette office chair, too tense to lean back, nervously breathing into the dark as the siren eventually faded leaving behind a crisp, maddening silence. Every slight noise, a crack somewhere in the walls or a tap of water dripping from the guttering, made him wince. Hours passed like this, and Fletcher wondered if Damien was still out there, sharing the intolerably quiet empty streets with the masked nightmare. But he wouldn’t dare look and risk breaking the rules.
Fletcher wasn’t sure how long he had sat, near statue like, in the dark but his ears suddenly found a sound to adjust to. A familiar metallic clink. His mind ran through everything that made a metallic sound in his life from cutlery to falling coins to…. the gate latch!
At the front of his home, his short, wooden gate had a latch that made a distinctive clink as it opened and closed. Now, was it closing? Did the wind push it closed? Is that what he was hearing? Or did it just open? If it opened that meant someone had just…
THUMP. THUMP. THUMP.
Oh God, thought Fletcher! He’s here! He’s at my door! He is at MY door!
The rules, he tried to remind himself, what were the rules?
No lights. No looking. No noise. What had he done? His trembling body wouldn’t move but his eyes darted around the room whilst his mind scanned desperately anything he could remember around the house. He had closed the curtains, rigorously taping them closed in most cases and he had locked the windows. He had switched off each light and unplugged everything that emitted even the slightest glow. Even if it had so much as a digital timer, it was off and left off.
THUMP. THUMP. THUMP.
Then, in a silent scream, Fletcher’s eyes widened until they became stark white balls balancing in their sockets, tears tumbling over and down his face. Just barely visible in the yellow glow seeping in from the street below the curtain was a greenish blue flickering tinge… the headphones! The tiny blue light that flashed above the charging port when they were in wireless mode!
Suddenly, instinctively, foolishly he leapt to his feet and over to the window throwing the curtain across to unveil the headphones, the blinking blue light reflected in the cold window! Mixing with the mustard aura from the street it became incredibly slight. Unnoticeable unless happened upon. He thrashed at the headphones, throwing them behind him only to realise what he had done. The curtain was now open, and he had broken another rule. He had looked, and down there in the unkempt garden, Harry had looked back!
Glancing down into the small front garden, halfway up the concrete path, Fletcher’s eyes met with those two perfectly round lenses that were as yellow as the streetlights they reflected. They stared back at Fletcher who, by now, was beginning to emit a sob from his throat, and his nerve endings began to fizz with terror.
The two locked gazes for all of, perhaps, twenty seconds but each second was etched on to his soul like a year. Taking in Harry’s form, this marked the only time Fletcher had seen the figure in person. He was lanky, undoubtedly skinny beneath the thick clothing. He wore the helmet and the battledress blouse as well as the oversized jerkin, just as the rumours told, but the mask was the most appalling apparition in and of itself.
Sat beneath the helmet, it was more of an inverted sack made of thick, patchy green canvas. Large, clumsy stitches here and there betrayed it to be handmade, and even the out of place buckle on the cheek showed that it had once been some sort of satchel, or maybe two. The mask sagged under the weight of a rubber concertina hose emitting from some sort of outlet where the mouth would be underneath. The hose then drooped down and under the jerkin, unlikely to have been connected to any real filter. With those round lenses, the size of cricket balls, reflecting light beams like torches, it was obvious this mask had no other purpose but to terrify those who looked upon it. And it terrified Fletcher.
A sudden lurching movement by Harry toward the front door jarred him out of his mesmerised state.
Harry was coming in; Fletcher was certain of it. Any second now.
He could hear the wooden door split and Fletcher considered smashing the window in front of him, throwing himself into the gloom to escape when, in a moment, the crashing stopped just as the siren, again, began to wail. The long, monotone all clear signal!
The gloom he was prepared to leap so blindly into was now, in fact, a pale grey and over the houses a hazy sunshine was spreading. In an instant, Harry, apparently obeying the siren, turned in place and marched away, the figure cutting no less of a nightmarish presence even in the early morning light as his boots thumped and clicked away.
As his mind raced and his vision blurred, the knots in Fletcher’s stomach remained tight and his jaw chattered, his teeth tapping an uneven rhythm.
The next sign of movement out there barely registered with him at first as he tried to control the trembling in his every fibre. Like a quintessential ghost, gliding up the street, a scant figure moaned and cried. She was a lady whose age, Fletcher eventually guessed, would have been in her mid-eighties, perhaps older. Her thin, snow white hair had partly escaped a ponytail and fluttered in the breeze. Her feet were bare and dirty, and they flicked at her long, off white night dress as she clumsily strode, seemingly after Harry!
Within seconds, Fletcher found himself clattering through the remains of his front door that was split almost from top to bottom down the middle, and then into the street after the old lady. He could hear her clearly now as she howled with a gusto that belied her age.
“Noooooooo! No more you old swine! You monster! No more!”.
She suddenly stopped, as did Fletcher a moment later, at the sight of Damien, and she pulled her hands in close to her chest. The man’s cold husk now keeled over onto its knees. The mouth was as black as if he had gargled soot and the eye sockets were vacant and as colourless as charcoal. His brow was frozen into an exaggerated ruffle giving him a tortured, fixed expression. One hand was open in front of him, and each finger was twisted at the knuckle into unnatural angles like the gnarled branches of a tree, as though his clenched fist were wrenched open with immense violence. Fletcher vaguely recalled that he had seen something in Damien’s hand the night before but whatever it may have been was now gone and losing it seemed to have been the final torture the man would ever experience.
“Oh,” sobbed the woman meekly, Fletcher now catching her up. “Oh, that poor man”. Her voice was just a whimper but still loud enough to hear. “That poor, poor man”. She began to cry, and her knees trembled and buckled beneath her. Though still dazed himself, Fletcher instinctively stepped forward and caught her securely.
She was almost weightless, thin and cold. She smelled musty but with a hint of sweet tobacco. For the first time she seemed to notice him and smiled as her wide blue eyes investigated his face.
“Oh, you’ve seen him, haven’t you? But”, she paused, her smile fading, looking suddenly confused, “he didn’t take from you”.
“Where do you live?” Fletcher spoke softly, ignoring her comments though not entirely understanding what she meant, as his heart continued to race from his all too recent encounter with Fogg. She continued to stare into his eyes with a confused, sorrowful expression, her thin lips quivering. It took a moment for him to notice her hand pointing back down the road.
Nodding, he lifted her up carefully into his arms, feeling every shifting bone beneath her thin skin and the even thinner night dress, and then followed the direction in which she pointed.
Arriving at the home of the old woman, nothing appeared out of the norm, at least for a town where the ‘norm’ had become a perpetual season of madness. Her garden was thick with matted, muddy grass and here and there potholes had been dug by foxes and filled with sludge.
“It’s open” the lady sighed in Fletcher’s arms. “It’s always open”.
Fletcher almost reacted with shock at the idea of someone in this forsaken place leaving their home unlocked. However, he was so beyond emotional outbursts right there and then, so he let her words pass him by, pressing the toe of his shoe against the door and feeling it open with a click, easily and smoothly.
Inside, he could smell that same comforting musk of sweet tobacco. The door opened immediately into the lounge and the room was warm and filled with daylight which streamed through the windows forming luminescent bars of grey through the dust that hung in the air.
Gently setting the woman down on an armchair pre-prepared with a bottle of water on a small end table along with two brown bottles of expired medicine, she winced a little as her frail body settled into the supportive horseshoe of cushions that she had built around her over time. Eventually she opened her eyes and smiled, looking at her young companion.
“Emily” she said. Fletcher raised his eyebrows before understanding.
“Fletcher” he replied. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
He wasn’t offering hollow platitudes at this point. It occurred to him that he hadn’t spoken to another person in weeks. Even then it was a glancing interaction with Mr Abbasi who opened his little shop occasionally, offering a scant range of canned goods, stale tobacco products, colouring books and even water purification tablets but little else. He didn’t offer scintillating conversation for any price. Not even a friendly demeanour. So, it really was a pleasure to meet and converse with Emily.
“Please” she smiled weakly, gesturing toward the couch. Gladly, Fletcher accepted the invitation to sit and rest his body which felt like it was weighed down by concrete. He had endured an explosive rush of fear and adrenaline unlike any in his life and now the energy inside of him was sapping away.
He collapsed without even a hint of grace, onto the soft, grey sofa. Emily looked across at him and chuckled.
“A well-earned rest, Fletcher” she smiled. “I don’t weigh so much, do I?” He returned an unconvincing laugh and shook his head.
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt this drained” he replied.
“Oh, he will do that to you, that old demon. Takes the life right out of you.” The familiarity of Emily’s statement caught Fletcher’s attention.
“Have you seen him? Where you here in the war?”
She rolled her eyes and gasped. “Oh yes. I’ve seen him and I was certainly here during the war.”
“What happened? Back then, how did it start?”
“I can’t say how it started but I remember the whole town felt different when he began his rounds.” She paused, not noticing Fletcher tilt his head at the term ‘rounds’. Gathering herself and looking down at her crossed thumbs, in-between which was a well worn handkerchief, she went on.
“I remember the sirens at first. As children we laughed and played at the excitement and everyone would rush into shelters or get under tables and beds” she stifled a smile, “all of the grown ups feared the Germans, all that way up in the sky, not really knowing the one they should have feared was a man that lived amongst us.”
“So, Harry Fogg lived in this town?!” said Fletcher, now bolt upright in his seat. He had never considered that the figure in the mask was once just another local.
“Yes,” nodded Emily, “oh yes. He lived here a long time. Never bothered anyone at first and no one ever bothered him”.
“So, what happened? Why…”
“Did he change?” interrupted Emily. She shrugged. “Who knows? The war brought something out in him , perhaps. It brought something out in a lot of the old men in town.”
She noticed the quizzical look on his face and so by way of an explanation added, “The old men who had seen the first war. Just like him”.
“But they didn’t go out and kill innocent people, did they?” Fletcher erupted, unaware of the condescending and confronting tone in his voice or the effect it had on Emily and the pained wince in her expression.
She retorted angrily “No one knows what he saw over there or how any of them would react when the new war came. When it came to their homes. To their town.”
Noticing the annoyance in her voice, Fletcher, though still unhappy with her apparent attempts at defending the creature that brought such misery to so many, backed down. Nodding, he broke eye contact and sighed.
Emily too eased up but continued. “The sirens, those awful sirens, they meant the war was over our heads. The war came to us now. To him. I suppose he couldn’t accept that. Perhaps, maybe he felt the need to visit the horrors he’d seen on to others.”
Something began to stir inside Fletcher. A sense of unease as he continued to listen.
“Maybe at first, he even thought he was helping. Going out and making sure people weren’t opening curtains, letting light out, peeping out at the bombers. Letting the Germans know where we were.” Emily raised her eyebrows and slightly tilted her head to look at Fletcher, though he wasn’t looking back. She continued to speak. “So he went out. In that uniform of his. Banging on the doors of anyone who broke the rules.”
“What did he do to them? The rule breakers” the question seemed crude and stuck in Fletcher’s throat. He almost choked as he asked and watched Emily sink into her chair, trembling slightly.
“Nothing, at first. People said he would stand and stare at them, frightening them because of his ugly old mask. But after a while he must have felt that his warning people wasn’t enough”.
Fletcher’s mouth was dry, his tongue stuck to his teeth as he spoke. “How many did he, did he, murder?”
The word ‘murder’ seemed to draw a brief, uncomfortable stir in her age weary face and she stumbled for a reply. “It’s hard to say after so long. Maybe more than we’ll ever know… But he didn’t… do that to them all. I don’t think so anyway. He only, I suppose, hurt the grownups.”
“What do you mean?” His head swam and echoed with her words. He couldn’t look away as the old woman’s soft voice was so at odds with the details she imparted.
“When the grownups stopped answering the door to him, he would wait. Sometimes, a minute or two later, if he waited quietly, the children would open the door instead, before their parents could stop them.
“Then he just,” she looked to Fletcher with great torment in her eyes, “took them.”
In horror, Fletcher rocked in his seat shaking his head. His mind pictured Damien on the bench and he felt the knots in his stomach tighten again.
“Took them where? Where are they, Emily?” He wasn’t sure why she had all of the answers but he needed them. He desperately needed to know now. Emily sobbed loudly and covered her mouth with the handkerchief.
“I don’t know. He always said he took them to those woods and he would set them free” again she wailed, pained by memories and the realities she had ignored for so long. “But they never came back, Fletcher. They never came back!”
With the words ‘he said’ resounding in his mind and resisting the temptation to reach out to comfort the sobbing woman, instead Fletcher’s eyes darted around at the collection of unusual items here and there. One item to another. Old toys. A plastic rose. An ornament of a cat. Stacks of cigarette boxes, some seemed to be decades old. His frantic gaze flitted around the room before they settled on a sepia photograph in an unusual thin, patinaed copper frame. It sat amongst old, tired books and roughly made metal toys on a unit in a particularly dusty corner of the room. He became so engrossed by the image that Emily’s voice, now more composed and relatively calm, had faded in Fletcher’s ears until it was a tinny background noise as his mind started racing.
“He made it himself, you know. That warden uniform. He was good like that. Making things with his hands”. She seemed lost in a memory that instilled some long dormant feeling of faint pride.
The curiously unsettling photograph was a portrait of a family stood straight and rigid. In front stood an unsmiling young girl wearing a long ribbon in her long, fair hair and an equally expressionless woman in a long dark dress with a wide, white collar. With them was a tall, gaunt looking soldier, his face appeared lost beneath a blemish on the film. He loosely rested a hand on the shoulder of the little girl.
“Mend and make do, they would say.”
He was a soldier from a lost generation.
“He took his old uniform…”
A soldier from the First World War.
“…he dyed it blue. He painted that old helmet white…”
A tall, imposing artilleryman.
“…and, for good measure, he threw on his old…”
The soldier wore a tattered, sleeveless …
Somewhere, out of sight down a dark hallway behind a half-closed door, the back door of the house clicked open and the sound of heavy boots briefly filled the air.
“We stopped him in the end, Fletcher. For a while, Mother and I did the unthinkable but we stopped him”.
The back door then clicked again as it closed. Fletcher knew someone else was now in the house and he craned his neck to peer into the darkness of the hall corridor, through the narrow opening in the doorway.
“But then, those awful sirens came back. For whatever reason, after so long, those bloody sirens came back.”
The sound of the boots started again.
“And so did he”.
The door swung open and the frame of the doorway was filled with the ungodly, silently oppressive figure, clad in a dyed blue uniform with a painted helmet and a tattered old jerkin. He held something familiar to Fletcher in his hand.
The room became freezing cold and yet Fletcher could feel the air in his lungs begin to burn.
Emily glanced up with exasperation in her sad, tearful eyes yet not looking toward the monster in the room nor toward the squirming man on her couch. “You came home, didn’t you, Father?!”.
That mask, with the cricket ball sized eyes, no longer reflected any light in the dull and dusty room but still they were dull and lifeless. Nonetheless, almost invisible behind the murky glass, two impossibly old, yellowed eyes, pocked with ruptured blood vessels, regarded Fletcher with unfathomable wrath.
Those eyes had beheld a great cataclysm of industrialised barbarism carried out on an impossibly enormous scale. They had taken in the sight of the machine of war and bore witness to its end produce. The unparalleled slaughter of a generation. And now, reflected back, was the black look of an inhuman, eternally scarred, enraged devil.
But Fletcher didn’t see the dreadful eyes that stared at him now. Instead, his entire existence was overcome as the excruciating burn in his lungs became like fire and the searing heat began to seep out of his swelling, blistered throat, drying and cracking his teeth like glass.
His eyeballs too started sizzling, cooking in their sockets before one then another ruptured with the intense heat. He gargled in pain but the sound was stifled and brief. The charred holes left behind emitted thin columns of black smoke.
“Whoever released you from Hell,” wept Emily Fogg, “may they forever rot in your place.”
Finally, a burst of swirling smoke erupted from Fletcher’s mouth as he writhed and twitched coughing in his last, agonised moments.
Harry Fogg’s shape now tossed the object in his hand onto the floor next to Fletcher’s gagging, coughing and finally settling body. The wireless headphones.
Another collected trophy. Just like all the other random trinkets in the room. A golf ball on a shelf. A singed book on the coffee table. A doll on a chair. And, on top of the old wireless radio, was a small, blue toy car with an oversized spoiler and the word ‘Speed’ just about visible on the bonnet.
Emily hopelessly sobbed, looking at the soulless remains on her floor. Reaching for Harry’s ice-cold hand she whispered in a broken voice “Why did you ever come home? You old monster”.
Credit: Dave Cash
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